Very few groups in Reggae have released such a small amount of music, yet still ARE4 revered to the same extent as the Congos. The Congos have released some of the finest music in the genre and although the group lacked longevity, the Congos definitely proved that in a legacy, quality is a lot more important than quantity.
The origins of the Congos have always been unclear, but there are certain facts known about the group: Carlton Myton was a member of the Tartans prior to the Congos, the Tartans being a Studio One rocksteady group; his recording career also included a stint with the Jamaican group Prince Lincoln and the Royal Rasses.
Roydel Johnson, recorded at various studios and learned guitar from the renowned Ernest Ranglin.
Watty Burnett had enjoyed some solo success prior to joining the Congos with ‘Rainy Night In Portland’.
So really not much is known about the group prior to the release of their debut album.
The Congos’ debut album came in 1977 with ‘Heart of the Congos’ which was released on Lee Perry’s Black Ark label. The album began as a project with the duo of Myton and Johnson, with Lee Perry adding Burnett to add greater depth to the tracks on the album. Despite his involvement on the album Burnett is not pictured on the record jacket, as he was absent in the Cayman Islands when the photo shoot took place.
During the production of the album, Myton and Johnson, both devout followers of Rastafari, pursued Burnett to follow the suit, and even challenged Lee Perry to stop drinking rum. It was not long before Lee Perry would split from the Congos, as 1978 saw disagreements arise between Perry and Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records.
At the time, Perry had a wider distribution deal with Island Records, however, Chris Blackwell was dissatisfied with the quality of the Congos’ album and refused to release it on Island, which kept the album in very limited circulation internationally, despite being popular in Jamaica. Unsurprisingly, this caused issues within the group and the Congos soon cut ties from Lee Perry.
‘Heart of the Congos’ would eventually go on to be released in Britain on Go Feet Records in 1980, a label which was owned by the British ska and reggae revival group the Beat.
The album itself is a genre classic, often credited as one of the finest reggae albums ever produced. The album even features illustrious backing singers like Gregory Isaacs, The Mediations, and Barry LLewellyn and Earl Morgan of The Heptones.
Unfortunately, this incredible album would be the beginning of the end in a lot of respects for the Congos. Following the album, Burnett left the group, soon followed by Johnson, leaving only Myton, who went on recording under the name the Congos with various other musicians until the mid 80s.
The Congos would return in the 1990s with Myton and Burnett returning alongside new member Lindburgh Lewis, with several albums following, nothing quite living up to their incredible debut.
In 2009, Myton, Burnett and Johnson all linked back up with Lee Perry to record the album ‘Back in the Black Ark’, which despite the name was actually recorded at Myton’s studio in Portmore. The Congos legacy although short, still maintains the groups status as icons, the Congos had such a huge effect on the sound of the genre and produced an all time classic album, one of the best albums ever produced in Jamaica, which knowing the incredible amount of music and the incredible musicians around at the time they released that album is not an easy feat.